Maybe it’s because I’m a glutton, but every analogy that I can come up with for Antoine Griezmann involves food.
— He’s like lettuce in that he’s everywhere, goes with everything, but doesn’t really DO anything.
— He’s like tiramisu because you hear a lot about it, finally try it and are like, “Uh, this isn’t that good.”
— He’s like white chocolate, something that should be more than it is.
And on it goes. But at some point, what everyone else is also going to recognize is that Antoine Griezmann just wasn’t a good transfer. There has been, and will be much screaming about Dembele, and “sell him,” and “why won’t he leave,” but the one who should be on the block with a “Come get him” is, for me, Griezmann. Someone smarter than me would have all kinds of fancy statistics and graphs and whatnot to make a point. But for me, all you have to do is watch him play.
At his initial rebuff of Barça, some of us breathed a sigh of relief. Naysayers say, “He’s a World Cup winner,” “He was important to France,” etc, etc. That sigh was short-lived, as the Barça board was more determined than ever to make the wrong move for way too much money, and so he came. Even before the transfer, my nickname for him was French Pedro. Why? He ran, worked, tracked back, could score goals when the opportunity presented, and couldn’t beat my dead Grams off the dribble. The question to ask is, would anyone countenance paying 120m for Pedro? Of course not. So why did Barça pay it for Griezmann?
Nothing about him at Atleti argued for him being a good fit at Barça, unless you wanted a forward that played like a defensive midfielder. Hell, Paulinho could do a lot of what Griezmann does, for less than half the price. And did for one “living his best life” season. France national team coach Didier Deschamps snuffled and said that the problem was that Barça wasn’t playing Griezmann at his best position. So surely, France vs Portugal was going to show Griezmann at his best, in an ideal position, doing what he does best.
Let’s take a moment to define what Griezmann does best. Anyone?
(insert the sound of crickets here, wait 30 seconds … )
France Griezmann, against Portugal, looked like Barça Griezmann. Exactly like Barça Griezmann, and it’s worth asking why.
To succeed at Barça, a player must be able to be brilliant in a phone booth. Spank an ideal Barça player a hard pass in a middle of a crowded train station, he will move it along to the next logical destination, without controlling it, without pause, not needing space to control. Just an assured first touch and the knowledge of where the ball needs to be next. A Barça team as assembled has protagonists and ensemble players, the ones who drive the drama and the ones who help the ones who drive the drama. So, Messi, Fati, Trincao, Puig are examples of the first. Alba, De Jong, Busquets, Pedri are examples of the second.
What all of them except for Alba have in common is that kind of control that lets them take a pass anywhere and manage. But that second group feeds a member of the first group. That control of space is necessary because you don’t want to disrupt an attack by getting the ball and, having nothing to do with it — or so it would appear to a certain class of player — just knock it backward. This is a lot of what Griezmann did against Portugal, who played France in a way that compressed space and applied pressure. Mbappe wasn’t allowed to run, nothing was allowed to develop. They Portugaled the hell out of that Nations League match.
Griezmann spent a lot of time prancing about, taking a pass and batting it backward or laterally, moving to another position and doing the same thing. Or he would try a one-touch forward pass without foresight, that was easily dealt with by Portugal. And he’s the man at the center of it all for Les Bleus, which in the hands of Deschamps is a team of associative players all waiting for a run by its sole antagonist in Mbappe. No run, no goals, no glory. France won a World Cup because people hadn’t yet figured out that if they just don’t let Mbappe run, that was that. Now they have, which means that someone else has to do something. Anything.
It’s the same issue at Barça, most recently seen against Sevilla. The two antagonists, Messi and Fati, each had their own dilemmas. Fati was wrapped up by Jules Kounde, who played a wonderful match. By wrapping up Fati, mostly 1v1, that left the rest of the defense to manage Messi, the other protagonist. This left Griezmann who, aside from the two chance he missed thanks to being played in by a protagonist, was invisible. Griezmann needs the ball to make something happen, and needs the ball in a space where he can do something with it. He doesn’t make his own shooting space, doesn’t beat anyone off the dribble. So he darts about, works on defense and plays wall passes. No club needs to spend 120m for that.
“He needs to play off a 9,” is the other commonly heard thinking. He had that in Luis Suarez, didn’t do much. Has that in Oliver Giroud for France, and …
Grace Robertson is a delight of a football writer, and breaks down the Griezmann (and other big-money transfers dilemma in this top-notch piece). It’s a fiver a month, and worth every penny. To follow on Twiter, look up @graceonfootball. We essentially come to the same conclusion, which is … why? There are lots of players who could do what Griezmann do, who wouldn’t have cost 120m and who would have been as productive. And Griezmann carries with him that whole price tag thing, which makes people say that “The best is yet to come,” or “He isn’t being used properly,” instead of maybe, just maybe, we have already seen his best.
Diego Simeone rides players hard. HARD. Then he sells them. Rare is a post-Atleti transfer who goes on to sparkle. They’re too tired. Arda Turan came from Atleti and was like, “Whew!” Griezmann came from Atleti, a team that is defensively oriented, where he worked great because everybody worked, and his associative play fit into the overall aesthetic, which is keep the ball, defend, don’t let anything happen, nick a goal and take the 1-0.
At Barça, a 1-0 win is kinda horrifying. The culers want goals, and plenty of them. And if you can’t score goals, then set it up so that Messi can score them. There is always talk of the off-the-ball stuff that Griezmann does, runs that he makes to open space, etc. You don’t need to spend 120m to get that.
Of the three big-money transfers of Barça over the past three seasons, all three are at the club. Dembele is (seemingly) on the outs with coach and board. But he’s fit, immensely talented and ready to show what he can do. Coutinho has been reborn, now that he is playing like something closer to his natural position. Griezmann, it has been said, needs to be playing a role closer to that of Messi to find his ideal space. He plays that role for Les Bleus, and is about as effective as he is for Barcelona, where he has nine goals from 55 shots so far. Dembele has more goals and assists, and he runs about as often as a vintage MG convertible.
Which brings us to the question of the day: What IS the ideal position for Antoine Griezmann. To my view, it’s the bench and on the market. Trincao subbed on for him against Sevilla and immediately started to make things happen, because he’s a protagonist. Love or hate Dembele, he tries to do stuff. With this Barça team, players who can do stuff — Coutinho is another one — are of more value than players who work on defense and make associative plays. There are plenty of those. So is it too soon to call him a failed transfer? Yes and no. He isn’t going to be much more than what he is, so the question is what’s the value of that to a team who needs players that make things happen? Worse is that he’s recently begun playing like a player whose confidence has been damaged. With four shots in the last three matches, and having been called out by his manager for two missed chances against Sevilla, a draw that could have been a win, and you really start to wonder.
Koeman will keep using him in the XI over Trincao and Dembele, for reasons that will become increasingly difficult to justify as the season progresses. It isn’t that Greizmann isn’t a quality footballer. His contributions for France in the World Cup win, and for Atleti were massive. But it’s a two-pronged question of value, tactical and fiscal. Does Barça need what he does, tactically? Not from what can be seen. As for fiscal value, Pedri, who cost about what one of Griezmann’s shoes does, tracks back like a fiend, does associative work on and off the ball, and is a wonder. Which makes you wonder, why did Barça spend 120m, except dammit, they were going to get their player. Okay. They did. Now what?